The sun simply refused to relent. Even my light summer clothing was no source of relief. How could anyone possibly bear the constant drone of cicadas in the Japanese summer? The weather was so much more pleasant in civilised countries such as my own. My own preferences aside, I had no choice but to endure it.
After a moment of sullen mourning as I walked towards the front gate of the IS Academy, my attention was drawn to Chelsea wearing, as usual, a proper maid outfit and leather corset.
‘Morning, Mistress.’ Even though she was all the way over by the limousine, I could still discern her familiar reserved smile. She was ever-graceful—sometimes a tease, yet always someone I could rely on when it mattered. I returned with a smile of my own.
‘Good morning, Chelsea.’
All at once, a chorus of voices called out from inside the limousine, their respective faces obscured by the tinted windows. Naturally, privacy was of the utmost concern for a National Cadet such as myself. Oh, and them too. My dear… acquaintances… were all already seated and ready: Houki, Rin, Charlotte, Laura, and—how could I ever forget him?—Ichika.
My eyes aren’t too dreamy-looking right now, right? Is my hair combed properly? Does my voice sound weird? With a start, I realised that the seat next to Ichika was open. Since the others had paired up, he was left as the odd man out. Do I dare impose like that…?
‘Get in already, Cecilia! You invited us here to begin with, so why are you the last one here?’ That shrill, demanding voice had to be Rin.
‘Coming, coming!’ I called back.
Ichika smiled guilelessly as he gently patted the seat next to him. Trying my best not to look too covetous so as to keep the others’ ire at a slow boil, I sat down on the fine leather. Centimetres separated the two of us. It would have been easy to reach out and touch that handsome face, that chiselled body. But a proper lady must keep her desires tempered.
With everything settled, the engine sputtered to a start and then to a low roar. I could hardly keep myself calm, but not because of my precarious position so close to Ichika. Rather, it was because I had a plan to realise.
Over afternoon tea, Cecilia had simply asked, unprompted, blushing up to her ears as she did so. ‘How can I… deter the other girls from having Ichika? Not any sort of permanent consequences, mind you, j-just…’ She trailed off, casting her eyes very resolutely into her cup of tea.
‘Love problems again, Mistress?’ I allowed myself a chuckle before continuing on with a more serious fire in my eyes. ‘Something like that would be easy to do. Trivial, really.’ I paused for effect, watching as Cecilia daintily had a light blue macaron.
In any case, I clearly had her attention, so I continued. ‘There’s no reason you shouldn’t take it all the way.’ Her eyebrows rose.
‘Wh-What? You can’t possibly mean that you… I-I mean, that I should…’
‘It’s entirely within the realm of possibility, Cecilia. A quick twist of the wrist would be enough to, say, infuse some tea with nanomachines that would do as your heart desired.’
‘A bout of coughing and fits would be enough, would it not?’ She was clearly trying to rationalise it. In her mind, undoubtedly, she did not intend to take such extreme measures, but I had already sowed the seed of malice. The conflict was raging somewhere within her.
‘Yes, certainly. But if you may allow me to put in my opinion, you can afford to go further than that, my dear Cecilia. It would be easy to orchestrate some “accidental” deaths, even if they do involve four National Cadets. More powerful people than they have… met their unfortunate ends prematurely with no one the wiser.’
That insidious glint in her eyes told me all I needed to know. If she hadn’t been convinced before, she certainly was now. All I had to do was untie the knot.
‘Tell me more, Chelsea.’
After several hours passed, we arrived at our destination. Splashes of verdant and mottled sunlight enveloped us. A delicately manicured garden sat in front of a traditional Japanese-styled house. It was disappointing, really, with how lacking in grandeur it was. I had always found it entirely too unbecoming for what it was. Did I, Cecilia Alcott, heir to the Alcott family, not deserve better?
Chelsea stepped out of the vehicle and opened the doors. I noticed that I was blocking Ichika from getting out, although this fact seemed to have escaped him as he jostled into my leg. His expression softened when he realised what he had done and he apologised sheepishly.
‘It’s no problem at all, Ichika dear.’ To put it honestly, I could endure far worse if it were for him. Once everyone was out and standing, we all took a moment to stretch their bodies.
Charlotte looked up, clearly in awe. ‘Wow, is this your place?’
Houki followed soon after. ‘It looks so… Japanese…’
‘Yes and yes. I, Cecilia Alcott, purchased this holiday home in Japan. The city government only allowed me to do so much with it. It simply pales in comparison to the ones back home in Britain.’
Houki looked even more slighted than usual by that last comment, though I couldn’t imagine why. It wasn’t as if I just insulted her dignity.
‘Anyway, you all go on ahead. The door is unlocked. I have some private matters to attend to with Chelsea.’
Once everyone cleared out, I gave Chelsea a nervous look. ‘Do you have it with you?’
‘I am sworn to carry your burdens, Mistress.’
Huh? Where did that line come from? ‘Sorry?’
‘I mean, it’s right here.’ A small, cold glass vial found its way from her fingertips into mine. Carefully, I then placed it into my bag. Though it couldn’t have weighed more than a few grams, it felt far heavier than that. Chelsea followed close behind me as I approached the building. Hushed conversation trickled out from behind the half-closed door. After I stepped in and left my shoes by the entryway, Chelsea closed the door behind her and curtsied.
‘I had forgotten to mention, the interior has been entirely redesigned. Although the façade looks Japanese, more modern amenities have been retrofit in to suit my mistress’s tastes more. Goodness knows it takes a lot to please her, hehe.’
‘I’m not a girl who’s hard to please!’ The words slipped out far faster than the implication ever could. Chelsea, how could you, you… Even as my cheeks grew warm, I couldn’t bring myself to think ill of her. The maid-mistress relationship was time-honoured. It would have been betrayal to violate its terms. Just as I would expect her to be dependable and to perform her duties, I would have to be a distinguished and proper lady, as difficult as such a task proved to be sometimes. Stability could only be maintained through rigidity and order.
‘Heh, I’m still kinda sorry for that whole thing with your leg, Cecilia. I hadn’t noticed.’
Remind me again what ‘rigidity’ and ‘order’ mean? My legs felt as though they would buckle underneath me as I quickly seated myself on a couch to recover my propriety.
‘No, no, that wasn’t a problem at all.’ I kept the beginnings of another possibly embarrassing remark to myself and fell silent. Ugh… I just want to crawl away and hide after what I was led into saying…
A click of air conditioning and the subsequent mechanical whir of a fan indicated that cool air would soon fill the room. Chelsea, still standing by the hallway, spoke once more. ‘May I interest any of you in some iced tea?’
A murmur of assent came from the couches where everyone was resting languidly. Chelsea gave a quick nod and another pleasant smile as she set off towards the kitchen.
It didn’t take long for the other girls to start fighting. Since we were six people in all, we couldn’t have possibly fit on one couch. Houki and Rin shared a couch with me, while Laura, Charlotte, and Ichika were on the couch across mine. Ichika certainly made for an interesting centrepiece, sandwiched in between the two girls, but Houki and Rin were having none of it.
‘Hey, why do you two get to sit next to him? I’m his childhood friend! Shouldn’t I have the right?’
‘Wait, hold on! Are you forgetting about me? You don’t get to play the “childhood friend” card!’
Laura scooted closer to Ichika, almost territorially, while Charlotte merely looked as if she were trying—and failing—to keep them in control. ‘Do you expect me to let go of my bride? Never!’
Ichika looked helpless, caught in the middle of all of this, so much so that I decided that I was going to have to save him from this. The rising volume of their combined shouting easily drowned out the sound of Chelsea shuffling around in the kitchen and preparing drinks. I knew in my heart that even if he could barely express his wishes, I would be the best candidate to fulfil them.
I had to raise my voice to be heard over the commotion. ‘Please, everyone. Seeing that this is my house, I’m sure Ichika would feel the most at home if he were to be by my side, isn’t that right, Ichika dear?’
No luck. If anything, my words only fuelled the already-blazing fire.
‘Don’t even try a dirty trick like that, Cecilia. Why are you so eager to have him?’ Rin had it in for me, I could tell. ‘Do you want to show him that lingerie you picked out or what?’
‘What—I never—’ Oh my God, how did she find out about something like that*?* I didn’t air my choice of undergarment in public like that! ‘That’s… none of your business, Rin!’
Amidst the fracas, a voice from behind us indicated that Chelsea had returned with a tray atop which glasses of iced tea sat. With poise and practiced perfection, she set down a glass for each of us on the coffee table, hardly paying any attention to the quarrelling except to whisper to me, ‘You know, Mistress, I can hardly blame all of you for having such strong feelings about Ichika. He is, after all, a true gentleman.’
Had it gone any further, personal IS’s certainly could have gotten involved, but the mere presence of an uninvolved third party, demure as she might have been, was enough to return us to our senses.
‘Sorry, Chelsea… I let my emotions get out of hand and start this all.’
‘Sorry. If my Lehrerin had seen this…’ The thought alone made Laura shudder.
‘I kinda let myself get involved, too, huh… sorry, everyone.’
‘I was simply negotiating some common ground, but even I failed. My dearest apologies, Chelsea.’
‘What? Why is everyone looking at me like my boobs are small? W-Wait, I didn’t mean that!’ But she understood what was expected of her. ‘Alright, alright, I’m sorry for making it into such a big deal.’
‘Allow me to humbly accept your kind words of apology. However, there’s no need to apologise at all, really. I understand completely why you were all so eager.’
It was decided that we would share the privilege of sitting on the same couch as him, and the conversation shifted to a more agreeable topic as we all claimed our glass of tea.
‘How has Akatsubaki been treating you, Houki?’ At least Charlotte was trying to smooth over the conflict with some conversation.
‘The quantum energy reload hasn’t been working its best lately. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not focusing my thoughts the right way. Even though the dojo should’ve trained me to do that…’ Her twintails whipped about as she shook her head.
‘Oh? That’s too bad, Houki.’ It was Ichika’s turn to speak. ‘Maybe I should be helping you out more, huh?’
That elicited a blush from Houki. ‘I-I mean, I wouldn’t mind, but just… it’s not right to treat a girl like that…!’
‘Yeah!’ Laura interjected out of nowhere. ‘You have to express yourself more clearly than that.’
‘What? I don’t get it…’ Ichika was clueless as always.
Charlotte looked as if she were ready to teach him a lesson through physical means, but held back. ‘I haven’t been doing the best either,’ she said. ‘It feels like… like someone’s plotting behind our backs to do something.’
Caught unawares mid-sip, I couldn’t keep myself from coughing on my drink.
‘Are you okay, Cecilia?’ Well, at least Ichika knew to show some concern for me.
‘Yes, yes, I’m quite alright, thank you for asking.’ That vial… did she know? How could she have found out? It’s not as if Chelsea would have spoken a word about it all to anyone else. No, no, maybe I’m merely overthinking things… Unless? My reservations continued to eat at me as I tried to keep myself involved in conversation to avoid arousing suspicion.
Before any of us had known it, an hour had passed. Shadows continued their slow march across the room as the sun moved lower in the sky. It had been hours since we last ate, which was before our departure, and the mood in the room was that dinner was overdue. And of course, a proper hostess must never leave her guests dissatisfied. To once and for all prove the superiority of British cuisine to them, I had arranged for James, an attendant of mine, to prepare a Sunday roast. It was rather more… mundane than I would have preferred, but considering how quintessentially British in nature it was, it would have been remiss not to choose it. All that was left now was to cook the side dishes, which meant that it was my time to act.
Chelsea wandered into the room once more. ‘The meal for this evening will be a traditional Sunday roast, if that suits all of your fancies.’ Everyone nodded in assent.
After discreetly ensuring with trembling fingers that the vial was still on my person, I stood up to follow. I didn’t understand why everyone else was staring at me with such concern. Was I showing too much nervousness for what should have been a routine task? Maybe my hair had become dishevelled?
‘Not to be mean or anything, Cecilia, but why are you getting up?’ Charlotte was the first to speak. ‘Your… cooking can get a bit…’ Why was she the one speaking up again?
‘Oh, it’s just because I’d feel terribly guilty if I were sitting around like the rest of you. After all, it was I who invited you to my home in the first place. It’s simply proper etiquette, is it not?’ She hardly seemed convinced, even if she seemed innocent. ‘My cooking isn’t awful, is it?’
‘It’s… fine, Cecilia. Don’t worry about it. I know how much it means to you to do things right, you know?’ Oh, Ichika, you absolute saviour! I would have to thank him later. And with no further interjections, I was free to step through the hallway into the kitchen.
It was only appropriate that this place have a professional kitchen—glossy white cupboards without any fingerprints to be seen, a tile floor, an island in the middle with a cutting board, and most importantly a wide window to let natural light filter in. Chelsea, an apron over her clothing, was already at work arranging the ingredients on a countertop, but paused to acknowledge me.
‘Do you have the vial, Mistress?’ I nodded. ‘Marvellous. I’ll set you the simple task of mixing the batter for the Yorkshire pudding, and the vial can be included in the mix. It should have the desired effect, Mistress.’ She paused again to point. ‘Oh, and the aprons are over there.’
Come to think of it, I hadn’t given a thought as to from where she was able to procure such a vial in the first place. It was only on her honour as my faithful maid that I believed it would work. I stepped towards the aprons and put one on, although nervousness made it difficult to tie the knot behind me. After washing my hands and returning to the counter, two eggs and bowls of milk, flour, and salt had been laid out already. Chelsea truly did work quickly. How to do this, how to do this… Even though this job was truly simple, I hadn’t even the faintest idea how to handle the eggs. I poured out each of the ingredients into a bowl, saving the eggs for last. Not wanting to bother Chelsea while she was hard at work, I cracked an egg hesitantly onto the counter.
I tried again, harder this time.
Still, nothing happened except for the dull thud of the egg striking the counter.
I tried again, and this time the shell disintegrated into shards, getting egg all over my hand. Well, I never…! Fortunately, the other egg gave much less resistance and I successfully emptied its contents into the bowl. Only one ingredient remained. Could I do it? Should I do it? The vial was open and just over the mixing bowl, yet I hesitated. Had I lost my sense of righteousness? A tense moment later, I decided that it would have to be done. The contents were poured out into the bowl, hardly more than a few millilitres of clear liquid, and I whisked it.
‘That’s quite enough mixing, Mistress.’ Embarrassedly, I stopped and set down the whisk. I hadn’t even realised I was overdoing it.
Now that my duties were done, I realised my chest felt tighter than usual. My nerves were getting the better of me. I couldn’t possibly let the rest of them see me like this… In the end, I stayed in the kitchen until Chelsea was finished preparing the rest of the meal to try to calm myself down. Having to isolate myself from Ichika like that was absolutely torturous, but I had no choice.
The clink of silverware meant that Chelsea was setting the dinner table and that food would soon be served. Even in my nervous state, I could tell the smell was simply divine. She had always excelled at cooking, and this was certain to impress even the most discerning palate. I seated myself in front of a plate of roast beef and potatoes atop a bed of a variety of vegetables. Chelsea had of course left three plates without any of the poisoned puddings.
‘Mm, that does smell good…’ Laura was the first to enter.
‘Yep. Chelsea’s quite good at this, isn’t she?’ Charlotte was next. Everyone else, including Ichika, followed closely after her.
‘As the guest of honour, I simply must have you sit by my side!’ It would have certainly complicated matters if he were to have one of those tainted puddings.
‘Hm? Oh, okay. Sure,’ he said as he took the seat to my left.
‘Cecilia, stop being so selfish already!’ Rin had her arms crossed over her chest.
‘Are you saying it’s not my privilege?’ I said more loudly than I had intended to. What was she implying? Well, rather, besides the whole murder plot… not that she knew. Did she know?
‘…’ She could sense she wasn’t getting any backup. The meal had already started to claim everyone else’s attention, including Ichika’s.
‘This is great! What did you put in this meat?’
‘Thank you for your kind words, Mr Orimura. To answer your question, one of my associates prepared it, and I’m told he put rosemary in it to enhance the flavours.’
‘Oh, okay. Well, tell him he did a great job!’
‘I certainly will.’
So far, it seemed that no one had gotten to their Yorkshire puddings yet.
‘Ahem, by the way, everyone. The Yorkshire puddings on your plates were my work, so please do enjoy them!’ Chelsea had told me to take credit for those for some reason. It was something about… them being more likely to stomach them because of that. To tell the truth, I had no idea what she meant by that.
Houki, Rin, and Laura had already taken a bite out of their Yorkshire puddings. Charlotte was the only one left out, which was—
‘Ichika, I noticed you don’t have one of these… bread things. Puddings, or whatever.’ Oh no. Unfortunately, Charlotte was sitting directly next to him. ‘Would you like to have a taste?’ Oh dear.
‘He very much would not!’ Perhaps it was a bit blunt, but I was left with no choice.
‘Err… what’s gotten into you, Cecilia?’ Ichika looked at me, confused.
‘N-Nothing! Just that… um…’ Quick, Cecilia, think! ‘That… it’s traditionally meant to be eaten by women!’
‘Oh… okay, I guess. Charl, you can have the rest then.’ Wait, he believed that? Just how far could I have taken it?
Charlotte blinked at me, gave me one last look as if I had gone mad, and—she ate it.
‘You’ve gotten better at cooking, Cecilia. I-I mean, not to say that you weren’t any good before, just that this is, well… better.’
‘Why, thank you. I pride myself in making my cooking look good.’ From somewhere across the table, I heard a mutter, but all I could catch was ‘as it tastes’. It was nice to have my talents recognised sometimes.
Even with the matter settled and everyone properly poisoned, I was constantly thinking. I certainly had tried this once already months ago under the pretence of wanting to learn more about each girl’s respective cultures. When they left their dishes unattended, I struck, adding the finishing touches that left all but Rin ill. I made sure to use that window of opportunity to grow closer to Ichika. But this time… this time, it was going to be something more permanent. I would be able to have him for myself, forever. It would be just him and me on a bed, electricity charged in the air and rose petals strewn about.
‘Are you sure about this, Cecilia? Are you definitely ready?’
‘Yes, Ichika dear.’
Sigh… I was lost in self-indulgent fantasies for the rest of the dinner.
After dinner, I remained preoccupied but had to play the part of the gracious hostess, even though I had just poisoned four of my guests. My hands felt dirty from some imagined spot of blood. Despite this, I had to keep up appearances. I found some playing cards to distract myself and everyone else until bedtime when the nanomachines could do what was necessary.
‘Hmm…?’ Who was rousing me at this hour? ‘Mistress, are you awake?’ My vision resolves to see Chelsea’s face looking down at me. I had hardly slept at all last night. I couldn’t have helped it. My conscience refused to let me get much rest. The other beds in the room were all empty. After all, it would have been nothing short of unsightly to have left… them there.
‘Oh… good morning, Chelsea…’ I stifled a yawn.
‘Good morning. Would you like me to ready a breakfast?’
‘Yes, of course. Thank you, Chelsea.’ And she was gone, leaving me alone once more. I was left wondering if the events of last night truly transpired. Was it some strange dream I was having? Perhaps it was merely a test of my mettle? These questions ran through my mind as I washed up in the en suite. The only sound besides the running water from the faucet was Chelsea downstairs opening cabinets and walking around.
I pinched myself. No, I wasn’t dreaming. I had really given those four girls, those… I suppose they truly were my friends and close allies, all National Cadets like myself… I had really poisoned them. Their nations saw the same promise in them as my own Britain saw in me, sending them bright-eyed to the IS Academy, and yet—they would never see the light of day again. They would never train again. They would never laugh again. They would never know love again.
They would never be again.
‘What have I done?’ I said to no one in particular. In the mirror I saw weakness. A teenage girl, not even old enough to have her own responsibilities, a bright future ahead of her as one of the elite few who was trusted with her own personal IS. And yet, there I was, the me who had been pushed into making decisions and having struggles to which no one of my age should ever be subjected, all because of that fateful train incident. And from that weakness, cowardice came. Burdened with the responsibilities of an adult yet still only fifteen years old, I truly did feel sorry for myself.
I wiped the tears away. Hopefully my eyes wouldn’t stay puffy for long.
After changing out of my pyjamas, I stopped at the stairs. Maybe it was my imagination, but I heard voices. The voices of whom? Who could it be after what I had done? I crept down the stairs slowly, curious as to the origin of the sound.
‘Ichika, you idiot—’
Huh? I ran down the last few steps and walked into the dining room to see—
‘Oh, hey Cecilia. Fancy seeing you take so long to get up.’
Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait…
‘Why do you look like you’ve just seen a ghost?’ That was Laura’s voice.
At this moment, I could no longer even.
‘I have never been more glad to see all of you alive and well.’ The emotion in my voice rang true and clear. Despite all of our differences, we were all of the same mould. Our common bonds were what held us together, and that was something I could never forget.
Forgetting myself, I hugged Rin tightly. ‘Um, okay. No need to get all touchy, but thanks, I guess?’
After making sure that everyone else was indeed alive, there remained one more part of this whole incident that I had yet to understand. Why did the poison not do anything?
‘Excuse me for one moment.’ I said, intending to stride towards the kitchen. Chelsea would have answers, right? But instead of preparing breakfast like she said she had been doing, she had been standing in the corner with a twinkle in her eye, giggling to herself.
‘Forgive me my little tricks, Mistress.’